Response to “Mitzvah” from Joel Roth
As a 21st-century American I, too, “prize autonomy, resist authority, and jealously guard options.” And for me, too, “commandment and obligation seem antithetical to personal freedom.” But, as a 21st-century American, I also know that I am bound by American law, and that American law is determined by a legal system that obligates me even though it often restricts my personal freedom. Recognizing this obligation regularly pushes me to attempt to understand and appreciate the underpinnings of the laws that bind me, so that my observance of them becomes more than blind obedience, but I also understand that my inability to do so, and even my disagreement with those underpinnings when I do understand them, do not entitle me to ignore or violate what the law demands of me. That is ultimately what it means to be bound by a legal system.
As a Conservative Jew, I am also bound by a legal system called halakhah, at the core of which stand the mitzvot of the Torah. Halakhah is law, not good deeds, even though some of the specific laws may be good deeds. I relate and react to Jewish laws much as I do to American laws, attempting to understand and appreciate their underpinnings so that my observance of them becomes more than blind obedience, but about both legal systems under which I live I also understand that my inability to do so does not nullify my obligation to obey.
Most Conservative Jews do not understand this about Conservative Judaism, and that sad fact reflects the greatest educational failure of our movement, a movement I believe to be the most Jewishly authentic movement that exists—the true heir to the rabbinic tradition. It is not an ideological failure, but an educational one.
It is absolutely true “that more than duty alone inspires” me with great regularity, but it is not true that, when not so inspired, I cease being commanded.
The chancellor’s desire to define what is distinctively Conservative and to increase performance of mitzvot is admirable, and he promises that his next post will deal with these issues. May God guide him in finding the way to bring about the reversal of the educational failure of the movement in these regards without his feeling compelled to water down or change the basic underlying commitment of the movement to the recognition of halakhah as a binding and authoritative legal system.